After Donald Trump was elected as the forty-fifth President of the United States of America, several cultural commentators and contemporary artists mentioned the importance of art as a form of resistance. In fact, art has always had the means to provide a powerful rebuttal to the corruption of culture, and Political art has continuously existed within the aesthetic discourse of art. For example, we can observe artists similarly protesting issues like police brutality in Thomas Nast’s 1874 wood-engraving Jewels Among Swine, which depicts the police as swine with batons, engaging affably with gangsters, while arresting female activists protesting against the lack of enforcement against crime; Spain Rodriguez’s 1969 comic strip Manning, a film noir inspired narrative of a crooked detective who takes little issue with using his authority to lie, cheat, steal, and brutalize innocent civilians; and more recently, Dread Scott’s installation A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday (2015), a stark re-appropriation of the NAACP’s banner (which read A Man Was Lynched Yesterday) that was hung from their New York City office during the 1920s. Dread Scott, a self proclaimed revolutionary artist, made the piece in response to the epidemic of black men across the nation being killed in cold blood by police officers.
As a young man venturing out into the (real) world during the George W. Bush years, art, music, and politics became the backbone of my grappling with the human condition in the midst of what I interpreted to be a grave point in the history of Western Civilization. Punk rock music and the revolutionary, anti-establishment charged imagery of underground comix, would have a lasting impression on myself and a generation of contemporary artists, writers, and musicians. It was during this time that I first came across the work of Raymond Pettibon, a major forerunner of today’s counter-cultural scene. He began his career drawing album art and posters for California’s Hardcore Punk rock scene in the 1980s. His most iconic work during this period is the art and the logo for the highly influential band Black Flag (Pettibon’s older brother Greg Ginn was a founding member). Pettibon’s current exhibition, “A Pen of All Work”, at the New Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side is a breath of fresh air in the midst of today’s foul political and social climate.
Pettibon’s unique style of brash line drawing combined with symbolic text, poignantly conflates the fields of fine art and visual culture. As an artist who got his start producing images associated with bands that were largely political and sometimes shocking, it is of little surprise that he has become such a prolific contributor of arresting imagery. It is evident that Pettibon is an astute observer and participant in past and present visual discourse. His drawings establish a contemporary dialog with the socially charged political cartoons of Thomas Nast and the expressive art of Goya (among others). He frames his imagery in such a novel way that references both past and present while also leaving plenty room for interpretation. They appear as if they’re out of the pages of a comic strip, and have powerful social undertones, which comment on popular culture.
The trouble with some political art is that it loses potency after the event it references has transpired. This is not the case for Pettibon. In fact, often times an older work is shockingly prophetic in its connection to the present. For example, No Title (I should be…) (1986) shows Joseph Stalin’s portrait with the caption above reading “I Should Be President of the United States.” This commentary is all too familiar given our current president’s convoluted relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. There are two drawings in the show that depict Trump, one from the 1980s and one during his campaign for the presidency. However, through Pettibon’s unique and mysterious way of phrasing his imagery, we are often left guessing and interpreting his work in a multitude of ways. In No Title (A Certain Donald Trump) (1986) it would appear that Pettibon’s sharp satirical tone is on display as we are presented with a vignette featuring the back of a man who is gazing at a moonlit New York City skyline. The accompanying text reads “A certain Donald Trump…The First Real Gentleman I’d met in Years”. Ironically, this work reads in the vain of the “alternative facts” that Trump’s advisors claim as the be-all and end-all. Other poignant sociopolitical work in the exhibition mentions the “the war on terror”, torture, religion, and identity politics. Pettibon is especially harsh on the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (although he doesn’t let Obama get a free pass by any means), and illuminates the cyclical nature of the corruption of power.
As an artist whose inspiration comes largely via the comic book, Pettibon also uses this medium to deconstruct certain cultural frameworks. For example, comic book icons depicted as homosexual lovers (Batman and Robin), can be read as a poignant rebuttal to Fredric Wertham’s condemnation of comic books as being degrading to culture because of sexually suggestive themes.
Pettibon doesn’t reserve his critique solely for conservative forces. There are several images in the exhibition, which suggest that the herd mentality of certain “liberal” grassroots movements is no better than jumping off a building. In a series of drawings, Pettibon illustrated the metaphor most of us hear consistently while growing up “if your friends jumped off a bridge, then would you too?” Just as Robert Crumb became a counter-cultural icon among the hippies and was later critical of the movement, Pettibon’s depiction of Punk subculture suggests that he has reservations about Punk becoming a fashionable trend.
Sports are also a passionate subject for Pettibon and he is a frequent commentator in both his artwork and on social media. The New Museum displays a plethora of his imagery of professional athletes. One such image, which features St. Louis Cardinal’s pitching legend Bob Gibson in mid-wind up. The accompanying hermetic text contains the 19th Century writer Henry James’ quote about New York City’s melting pot during the turn of the century: “the fruit of a foreign tree is shaken down there with a force that smothers everything else”. Perhaps, this work is in reference to Gibson’s adversity in dealing with racism and his perseverance as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Until the 1940s, African Americans had been alienated from America’s past-time, and have faced racial antagonization long after Major League Baseball became an assimilation of race and cultures. Pettibon also wrote “Lower the mound, change the strike zone…This isn’t a game. This is real life”. Gibson’s record setting dominance led Major League Baseball to enforce the “Gibson Rules” (lowering the mound five inches, and reducing the height of the strike zone from the batter’s armpits to the jersey letters). While many commentators mention Gibson’s aggressive approach on the mound, they rarely associate it with reality outside of the game. Gibson has said that because of the racism he faced he developed an anger fueled drive to be better and to succeed beyond anyone else in the sport.
Whether he’s depicting scenes on the battlefield or the ball-field, Pettibon’s diverse contributions to visual culture are clear and it is a jolting experience to see such a diverse body of work from an artist who is an important commentator of both mainstream and counter-cultural society.
“A Pen of All Work” is on view at the New Museum through April 9, 2017.